Let’s do that hockey.
The Edmonton Oilers will kick off their 41st National Hockey League season on January 13th with a back-to-back against the division rival Vancouver Canucks. What follows is 56 total games in 115 days (approximately one game every other day) against Edmonton’s other division rivals, both traditional and otherwise.
With the closure of the Canada-United States border due to the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic, the NHL decided to re-align their four divisions so that as many teams as possible were able to play out of their home rinks. The Oilers will partake in the brand new North Division, where they will see the usual suspects – your Canucks and your Flames – but will also see plenty more of the other Canadian teams.
Buckle up, ladies and gentlemen, because the re-ignited (pun intended) Battle of Alberta between your beloved Oilers and the evil savages to the South will occur TEN TIMES this season. 18% of Oilers games in 2021 will be against Calgary. The highlight of this series is a pair of games on back-to-back nights in February with the latter scheduled for Saturday Hockey Night in Canada. Expect blood.
The Vancouver Canucks are the other team the Oilers will square off with ten times, starting with the back-to-back curtain raiser on January 13th and 14th in Edmonton. While Vancouver-Edmonton pales in comparison to the Battle of Alberta, the Canucks are still a rival, and these are two teams that will be right in the thick of the playoff race. Besides, any time you play a team ten times in less than six months, it will get heated. Expect blood.
As for the other four Canadian clubs, the Oilers will play each on a total of nine occasions each. Again, I don’t care what team you’re playing, if you play them this many times in a season, it will get out of hand quickly. Expect blood.
I really like the decision made by the NHL to construct the schedule the way they did. To explain what I mean by this, let’s take a look at the Oilers’ schedule in the month of March:
To start the month, the Oilers play the last two of a three game series against the Toronto Maple Leafs at home. Then Calgary makes the three hour drive north for a single game, followed by three against the Ottawa Senators. After two weeks at home, the Oilers take the short trip to Vancouver to play a single game. Then two in Calgary. Back home for two against the Winnipeg Jets. Then they travel east of Lloydminster for the first time in over a month. Three in Montreal, two in Toronto, and then it’s back home for the Oilers.
In a month, the Oilers play seventeen games, but they only get on a plane five times, and three of those trips can be completed in an hour and a half or less.
That’s the first reason I really like this schedule from the NHL. In the COVID Era, you want to limit travel as much as possible because it eases the strain on the players, and it reduces the risk of a potential outbreak. If a player in an Edmonton-Montreal game tests positive, it won’t affect the Ottawa-Winnipeg game because you’ve isolated the incident. We are less likely to see MLB-esque cancellations of games because of this schedule.
The second reason I really like the schedule is related to the first section of this article. It builds hate. Sure, the Oilers might not have any hard feelings towards the Canadiens now, but you can’t tell me that playing Corey Perry three times in a week doesn’t end with a spear job. Expect blood.
How Does it Affect the Oilers’ Chances?
I’m not going to get into the “Which Division is the Best” argument here, because I don’t want to waste your time. I just want to look at how the Oilers might fare playing Pacific Division teams vs. their new division opponents. (I’m using Regulation Win Percentage to measure the quality of each team. The reason boils down to the fact that overtime is essentially random.)
Regulation Win %, 2019-20
There you go. The overall quality of teams that the Oilers are facing are exactly the same that they would face in the Pacific Division (obviously this is a very crude measure. It doesn’t take into account offseason additions or internal development). If these numbers seem low, the league high RW% last season was the Boston Bruins at .543.
You may be wondering what the Oilers sat at. By this metric, the Oilers were the best team in the Pacific last year, and the best of the Canadian teams. Their regulation win percentage was .437.
If they’re the best team, then should strength of opponent matter? Perhaps not. Still, I want to compare how well the Oilers play against these teams head-to-head over the last three seasons (for a larger sample size):
Edmonton Oilers Head-to-Head Regulation Win%, 2017-2020
Asterisks indicate teams that the Oilers have played well against (RW% above .336, which is Edmonton’s RW% against all teams during that span).
Despite struggling against Toronto and Winnipeg, the Oilers are roughly as successful against the Canadian teams as they are against the Pacific teams. The difference is .984 regulation wins over an 82 game season (.672 over 56). This is to say that the Oilers were a good team last year, should be a better team this year, and that the schedule isn’t offering much to change that. In fact, you could say that the Oilers were granted a very slight advantage from the schedule.
Facts & Figures
While diving deep into the Oilers schedule, a few interesting tidbits presented themselves:
- The Oilers are scheduled to play 11 back-to-backs, tied with Ottawa for the most in the North Division, and second in the NHL only to San Jose (According to Travis Yost of TSN). They played eight in 2019-20.
- 12 Oilers games are scheduled on Saturdays, compared to 17 that were scheduled over 82 games last season. We won’t know how many will be part of Hockey Night in Canada until the game times are released, but one can only assume that a lot of games in the North Division will be nationally televised.
- With divisional playoffs in effect this season, we could see a maximum of SEVENTEEN Battles of Alberta if the two should meet in the first or second round.
The NHL has set the stage for what should be the most entertaining regular season of NHL hockey we have ever witnessed.